Ray Shining In Music City
July 20, 2001 | 10:00 P.M. EST
The bad news was the hard rain that delayed qualifying for an hour also slowed the 1.33-mile concrete track, keeping Ray from topping the 202.452 mph speed he hit in testing two weeks ago.
The good news, though, was his 199.922 mph was still faster than anyone else and he walked away with the pole for Saturday night’s race.
“All you can do is drive to the conditions,” Ray said. “Whether it's 199 (mph) or 299 (mph), it doesn't really matter. It's all relative to your competition. We thought for sure that the pole was going to be anywhere from mid-200 (mph) to high 202 (mph). We certainly set up for that. The track lost a little bit of grip, not a lot, but it just seemed to be a little dustier and lost a little grip on the entries and the exits -- not so much mid-corner, but on the entries and the exits. The air was just really, really thick
“The downforce that we have to carry here, we're mandated to run 12-degree rear wing and 1-inch rear wicker, and that's a big penalty to pay when the air density changes just a little bit. You're carrying a lot of extra drag. Really it's just a relative thing.”
IRNLS points leader Sam Hornish, who topped 201 mph to lead practice earlier Friday couldn’t catch Ray for the pole, but his 199.750 mph run will put him on the front row starting second. Mark Dismore will start third, followed by Billy Boat and Eddie Cheever Jr.
“We weren't quite up to peak horsepower, not quite up to the best rpm range that we could get to, so we're happy to start second,” Hornish said.
Defending IRNLS champion Buddy Lazier will start sixth, followed by Thursday’s practice-leader Robbie Buhl, Jeff Ward, Felipe Giaffone, and Donnie Beechler
Indianapolis 500 pole sitter Scott Sharp couldn’t find a groove on the track and will start 13th. Sarah Fisher will start 17th.
This is Ray’s fourth pole of the year, but his pole performances haven’t done much for his season points total. The 1999 IRNLS champ is 13th in the standings going into the ninth race of the season Saturday night.
Earlier in the year Ray was highly critical of the concrete track, pointing to complaints by NASCAR Busch Series drivers that it was slippery. But after he tested in Nashville two weeks ago he felt more comfortable, even if the USAC race had to be cancelled due to excessive speeds.
“I was a little apprehensive about coming to a fast track that's concrete because concrete doesn't normally have the grip that asphalt does," Ray said. "The grip was pretty good. The upside of concrete is that it's very consistent once you get in the window of operation.
“It's a fun, fast track. It's very challenging. We're very excited to be in a new market.”
The main effect running on concrete will have on the drivers is that the 200-lap race could be physically exhausting without as much grip and traction on the tires. The drivers will have to constantly steer the car into place, rather than slip into a groove and let the machine run itself.
“After running some long runs around here, it's a little bit tougher on the forearms to keep steering the car for 50, 60 laps, but, you know, that will work out good for me,” Hornish said. “A little bit of youth might help us."
Cheever, who will be making his fifth Top 5 start of the season, said the uniqueness of the concrete track should make for a different kind of race Saturday.
“I keep looking outside to see if the moon is in the sky, because I'm not sure if I'm on Mars or not. This is a different kettle of fish. There's no feeling in the track at all. You have to go on memory and trust the changes that the team makes to the car, because I can't tell if the car is getting better or worse for me.
"I keep picking up more speed and using more and more track, but I have never once felt the car slide. It's very bizarre. I'm very uncomfortable."